Whether we like it or not, training and nutrition go hand in hand. A well-structured diet provides the fuel required to maximize performance in the gym, the nutrients required to repair and recover from hard training sessions, and the building blocks required to gain muscle mass over time. This guide is going to break down the process of building a diet from scratch to optimally support your performance and body composition goals.
- Part 1: The Basics
- Part 2: Designing the Diet
- Part 3: Adjusting the Diet
- How Much Protein Should I Eat?
- How Much Carbohydrate and Fat Should I Eat?
- What About Time-Restricted Feeding?
- What About Intermittent Fasting?
- What About Ketogenic (Keto) Diets and Other Low-Carb Diets?
- Are Processed Foods Bad?
- What About Vegan or Other Vegetarian Diets?
- What About the Carnivore Diet?
- What About the Paleo Diet?
- Should I Count Macros and Calories from Supplements?
- What About Low-Calorie Sweeteners?
Part 1: The Basics
Before we crunch numbers and start assembling the puzzle, it’s important to understand the individual pieces of the puzzle. The most foundational piece to address is actually a unit of energy: the calorie.
A calorie describes the amount of energy required to heat 1 gram of water by 1° Celsius. Throughout the day, we are constantly consuming energy (calories) from the foods and beverages we consume, while we are simultaneously burning energy (calories) as our bodies carry out metabolic processes to keep us alive and moving. The balance of our daily energy intake and expenditure is, intuitively enough, referred to as energy balance, and this is what largely dictates our changes in body composition.
We burn some amount of energy every single day, and unless we’re doing a pretty extreme fasting protocol, we consume energy (in the form of foods, beverages, and dietary supplements) as well. In simplified terms, energy balance refers to the relative daily balance between energy consumed and energy burned, and in the United States, we tend to discuss energy intake and expenditure in terms of calories.
The word “calorie” brings us a little bit of confusion when we apply it to the nutrition world. The calorie is a very, very small unit of energy, so when we talk about energy intake or expenditure, we typically refer to kilocalories (1 kilocalorie = 1,000 calories), which are often shortened to “Calories” with a capital C. So, when someone indicates that they ate 2,300 Calories yesterday, they actually ate 2,300 kilocalories, which is 2,300,000 calories. You might also see people using kilojoules as a unit (1 calorie = 4.184 joules, 1 kilocalorie = 4.184 kilojoules).
We ingest our kilocalories in the form of macronutrients, which include carbohydrate, fat, protein, and alcohol. A gram of protein provides about 4 kilocalories, a gram of fat provides about 9 kilocalories, a gram of carbohydrate provides about 4 kilocalories, and a gram of alcohol provides about 7 kilocalories. As such, we can easily calculate our daily energy intake by summing the energy provided by our daily intakes of protein, fat, carbohydrate, and alcohol.
Just as we can partition our total energy intake into contributions from distinct macronutrients, we can also partition our energy expenditure into distinct compartments. As previously discussed in The Metabolic Adaptation Manual, total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) describes the total number of kilocalories we burn in a given day, and TDEE is made up of four components
- Basal Metabolic Rate (~70% of TDEE in general population)
- This describes the energy required to simply keep our body “on,” at rest, assuming we lay in bed all day without moving or eating.
- Thermic effect of feeding (~10% of TDEE in general population)
- This describes the energy used in the process of eating, digesting, metabolizing, and storing food.
- Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (~5% of TDEE, depending on how much you exercise)
- This describes the energy used during structured, intentional exercise.
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (~15% of TDEE, depending on your activity level)
- This describes the energy used for any movement that isn’t purposeful exercise. This would include walking around your school or office, doing yard work, taking out the trash, and even fidgeting in your chair.
We have some magnitude of resting energy expenditure every single day, no matter what. On a typical day, we also do some activities of daily living (which contribute to NEAT), consume some food (which contributes to TEF), and we might also do some structured exercise (which contributes to EAT). If we knew the true energy cost of each category of energy expenditure, we could calculate our total daily energy expenditure by summing the values. When we’re consuming more calories than we burn, we’re in a calorie surplus, and when we’re burning more calories than we’re consuming, we’re in a calorie deficit.
It’s often said that the difference between the kilocalories we consume in our diet and the kilocalories we burn throughout the day dictate changes in body weight. As Menno Henselmans has previously explained in an article, this is a bit of an oversimplification. For starters, even if we track our energy intake with perfect accuracy, we don’t absorb every single calorie that might show up on a food label. In addition, there are fluctuating factors that influence our scale weight without influencing the actual amount of fat mass or lean tissue we have, such as transient fluctuations in water retention or fecal material in the gastrointestinal tract. Beyond that, the actual metabolizable energy content of fat mass and lean mass differ. In other words, breaking down one pound of lean mass yields a different amount of kilocalories than breaking down one pound of fat mass, and adding one pound of lean mass requires a different amount of kilocalories than adding one pound of fat mass.
So, when we have independent changes in fat mass and lean mass happening simultaneously, along with transient weight fluctuations related to total body water and gastrointestinal contents, it is theoretically possible to lose some weight or body-fat while in a caloric surplus, or to gain some weight or body-fat while in a caloric deficit. So, in the interest of being nuanced, we should conclude that the net balance between the energy we absorb from our diet and the energy we burn dictates our change in body energy; how this change in body energy is partitioned into fat mass and lean mass will depend on the presence of adequate training and nutritional factors required to facilitate the accretion or retention of lean mass, and how this change in body energy influences total body weight will also be impacted by fluctuations in total body water and gastrointestinal contents. Now that we’ve got the technicalities out of the way, we can move onto the more practical stuff.
If we’re aiming to build muscle, we want to achieve an energy surplus, which has been shown to facilitate hypertrophy (after all, building muscle is an energy-intensive process). Having said that, we don’t necessarily want to go overboard with our surplus; the more excessive the surplus gets, the more unnecessary fat gain we’re inviting. If we’re aiming to lose fat, we want to achieve an energy deficit. Barring any precipitous and extremely atypical losses of lean mass, an energy deficit will put us in a position where we need to rely on stored fat to meet our body’s energy demands.
If we’re aiming to maintain our current body composition, then things are pretty simple; we just aim for an energy intake that keeps us at a pretty stable body weight, and we keep doing what we’re doing in terms of physical activity and training. If we’re trying to intentionally “recomp” (lose fat while gaining muscle), we have to focus a little more closely on threading the needle. We need to be eating enough to support muscle growth, while providing a robust training stimulus to promote that growth. Simultaneously, we have to keep energy intake low enough that our body needs to tap into stored fat for energy. We could theoretically be losing, gaining, or maintaining weight during a recomp, which all comes down to the relative rates of muscle gain and fat loss. For example, an untrained person with plenty of body-fat to lose could technically be recomping while losing body weight at a pretty steady clip; such an individual would have a pretty notable capacity to make beginner muscle gains while also achieving simultaneous fat loss. In contrast, a well-trained person with low body-fat would not expect major weight fluctuations during a recomp, given that they have less fat to lose and pronounced muscle gains will be harder to come by. Rapid muscle gain is unlikely for drug-free lifters, particularly in the absence of a large caloric surplus, so it’s pretty rare to see marked weight gain during a recomp period.
As we already know, our calorie intake comes from our consumption of macronutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrate, and alcohol. All of these macronutrients provide energy in the form of calories, but there are some very notable distinctions between them, and they serve very different purposes in our diet. Two diets containing 2,500 kilocalories per day could look very different in terms of the types of foods they include, the way they impact body composition, and the way they impact performance, if their macronutrient ratios differ.
I probably don’t have to spend too much time selling you on the idea that protein is important, so I won’t. The potential benefits of high-protein diets are multifactorial; protein facilitates recovery, supports hypertrophy, and enhances satiety to an extent. You’ll also commonly hear that protein has a higher thermic effect of feeding that carbohydrate and fat. This is true, but more of a “fringe benefit” than an important factor influencing diet design.
All proteins are made up of a variety of amino acids. There are 20 naturally occurring amino acids, which can further be classified as “essential” or “nonessential.” We can make enough of the nonessential amino acids to get by without eating them, but we can’t synthesize the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts. Thus, we need to get adequate amounts of essential amino acids from our diet, which is why we call them “essential.” If you want to categorize things even further, branched-chain amino acids are a special subcategory of essential amino acids, and leucine is a particularly special branched-chain amino acid that is responsible for initiating muscle protein synthesis after a meal. Building muscle ultimately boils down to net muscle protein balance; we see a transient increase in muscle protein synthesis following meals, which is later followed by a reduction in synthesis and an increase in muscle protein breakdown until the next meal with adequate leucine and essential amino acids. The more that synthesis exceeds breakdown, the more muscle we stand to gain. If we fail to take advantage of opportunities to stimulate muscle protein synthesis throughout the day, we may miss out on some gains. So, if we want to initiate muscle protein synthesis and ensure that we have all the building blocks available to create new muscle proteins and support hypertrophy, then we want to make sure our diet has at least a few meals throughout the day that provide plenty of leucine and plenty of essential amino acids.
It’s important to recognize that not all protein sources are equivalent. There are numerous scales for rating “protein quality,” and while they all differ to an extent, the important characteristics dictating the quality of a protein source are pretty clear. On one end of the spectrum, a really high-quality protein will tend to have plenty of leucine per gram, plenty of essential amino acids per gram, a sufficient amount of each individual essential amino acid, and good digestibility. This is generally true of most animal-derived protein sources, such as dairy (including whey and casein), egg, meat, poultry, and seafood.
In comparison to animal-derived proteins, plant-based protein sources tend to have lower amounts of leucine and essential amino acids per gram of protein, poorer digestibility, and they generally lack a sufficient amount of at least one essential amino acid. This is unfavorable in theory, not only because of leucine’s role in stimulating protein synthesis, but also because we need all of the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts in order to synthesize new muscle protein to the maximal degree. In addition, our muscles can only use the amino acids that reach them, so poor digestibility can be a bit of a problem. Unfortunately, the potential issues don’t stop there. A 2019 study compared three different plant-based protein blends to whey protein isolate, while taking great care to ensure that all four protein supplements had the exact same leucine content (2.6g), protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (1.0), and total essential amino acid content (12g). Despite all the effort dedicated to making these treatments as equivalent as possible, the whey protein isolate still caused substantially larger increases in blood leucine and blood amino acid levels during the four hours following ingestion, which would theoretically be more favorable for muscle building purposes.
There are quite a few studies, as reviewed by Van Vliet et al, showing that plant-based proteins generally induce smaller increases in muscle protein synthesis than animal-based proteins when we look at a single dose or meal. As such, one might reasonably expect that plant-based proteins are inferior for hypertrophy, but it’s not quite that simple. In studies that compare supplementation with a plant-based versus an animal-based protein supplement, a recent meta-analysis reported that effects on lean mass gains are pretty similar. You could argue that the results leaned slightly in favor of animal-based protein supplements, but it only amounted to a difference of less than half a kilogram of lean mass, which was not significantly different from zero. When taking a more comprehensive view of entire diets, a recent study suggests that vegan diets and omnivorous diets can support hypertrophy to a similar degree, as long as that vegan diet has plenty of protein, a complementary mixture of essential amino acids, and provides at least 3-4 decently sized servings of protein per day, with each yielding at least 0.24g/kg of total protein and at least 2-3g of leucine. We’ll get into exact recommendations in part 2 of this article, but optimizing your protein intake can help with appetite management, glycemic control, recovery from exercise, and muscle hypertrophy.
Just as protein has many important benefits, dietary fat is absolutely critical. For example, fat is needed for cell membrane construction, hormone production, and fat-soluble vitamin absorption, and having adequate fat in the diet can have a favorable impact on satiety, to an extent. We often categorize dietary fats based on the structure of their hydrocarbon chains, which requires us to think back to our most recent biochemistry class. If all of the chemical bonds along this hydrocarbon chain are single bonds, it’s a saturated fatty acid. If the chain contains one double bond, it’s a monounsaturated fatty acid. If the chain contains two or more double bonds, it’s a polyunsaturated fatty acid.
Most of the time, the double bonds in unsaturated fatty acids have a “cis” configuration, in which the functional groups are on the same side of the hydrocarbon chain. However, if a fatty acid contains one or more double bonds with the “trans” configuration, the functional groups will be on opposite sides of the chain, and the fatty acid is categorized as a trans fatty acid. You’ve probably heard of these categories before; it’s very common for food labels to list not only the total fat content of the food, but also the amount of saturated fat and trans fat.
Fat had a pretty bad reputation from the 1950s up through about the 1990s, which was largely overblown. However, dietary fat has made a huge resurgence, largely fueled by increasing popularity of the ketogenic, carnivore, and paleo diets, and the resulting glorification of dietary fat is also a bit overhyped. When people set their sights on making evidence-based decisions about dietary fat sources, they often focus on the cholesterol, trans fat, and saturated fat content of the food. It’s counterintuitive, but dietary cholesterol intake probably doesn’t have a huge impact on blood cholesterol levels; the US guidelines used to recommend keeping dietary cholesterol below 300mg/day, but they have removed this guideline in recent years. Most dietary trans fats are synthetically produced by a process called hydrogenation, which converts double bonds to single bonds and gives the food item more favorable properties for cooking, texture, and shelf stability. We generally see dietary trans fats in the form of partially hydrogenated oils; there seems to be a pretty universal consensus that these artificial trans fats are pretty bad for cardiometabolic health outcomes, so most dietary guidelines recommend avoiding them as much as possible. There are also small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats found in the meat and dairy products from ruminants. While evidence clearly demonstrates that artificial trans fats are bad news, the data related to naturally occurring trans fats are pretty inconclusive; it’s not clear if this is because there’s a true difference in risk, or because the naturally occurring trans fats appear in pretty limited amounts, thus capping intake at a low enough level to avoid deleterious effects.
While trans fatty acids are far more deleterious than saturated fatty acids, it might not be a bad idea to at least keep an eye on saturated fat intake. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about fats; some people demonize saturated fats to an unjustifiable degree, while others treat polyunsaturated fats as if they’re poison. There’s no reason to aggressively avoid either, but it’s worth noting that high saturated fat intakes are associated with some unfavorable effects on blood lipids, and replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat has been linked to reduced mortality risk.
Beyond their degree of saturation, fatty acids can also be categorized based on whether or not they’re essential. Much like essential amino acids, essential fatty acids cannot be created by our bodies in sufficient amounts, so we have to get them from our diet. Once again, this categorization comes down to the chemical structure of the hydrocarbon chain. All essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated, but not all polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential; the location of the final double bond is what ultimately dictates whether or not a fatty acid is essential. The very end of the hydrocarbon chain is labeled as the “omega” end, and we count the chemical bonds backward from that point. Humans have the ability to synthesize some unsaturated fatty acids, but we don’t have the enzymes required to insert double bonds at the omega-3 (3rd bond from the end of the chain) or omega-6 (6th bond from the end of the chain) position. As a result, there are two fatty acids that are truly essential for humans: alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). If we have adequate intake of these fatty acids, we can synthesize all sorts of derivative omega-3 fatty acids (such as eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) and omega-6 fatty acids (such as gamma-linolenic acid, dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid, and arachidonic acid).
You’ve probably heard of EPA and DHA before, because they’re the two most notable fatty acids in fish oil. While it’s true that we can create EPA and DHA if our diet has plenty of alpha-linolenic acid in it, these conversions are very inefficient, and there are many plausible benefits associated with increasing the EPA or DHA content of various tissues throughout the body. For example, the fatty acids in fish oil have been linked to positive impacts on a wide variety of things including cognition, mental health, inflammation, immunity, muscle protein balance, and neuromuscular function, all with varying degrees of evidence. As a result, it’s very common for people to supplement with marine sources of EPA and DHA, most commonly from algae oil or fish oil supplements, in order to get these fatty acids directly from the diet instead of relying on inefficient conversions from alpha-linolenic acid. Omega-6 fatty acids are typically easier to come by in the diet, so supplementation with omega-6 fatty acids is far less common. Whether you choose to supplement or not, you definitely want to make sure you’re getting sufficient essential fatty acids from your diet, which may require extra attention if you’re on a pretty low-calorie diet with limited fat intake. If you use MacroFactor, your intakes of EPA, DHA, total omega-3, and total omega-6 fatty acids are all easy to monitor.
In the section about fat, I mentioned that dietary fat generally had a bad reputation for a few decades, but has really rehabbed its image within the last 10-20 years. Conversely, carbohydrates have followed the inverse trajectory; high-carb diets were almost universally embraced for several decades, but the growing popularity of low-carb diets has tarnished public perception of high carbohydrate intakes a little bit. Just as fat’s historically bad reputation was overblown and generally undeserved, the more recent backlash against carbs is similarly overblown and largely lacks justification.
Carbohydrates are not “nutritionally essential.” While sufficient dietary intake of essential fatty acids and essential amino acids are required for survival, the same cannot be said for carbohydrates. Nonetheless, carbohydrates play an important role in providing energy for high-intensity exercise (including both cardio and resistance training), and there are numerous health benefits associated with a wide variety of high-carbohydrate foods. For example, high-carb foods often provide plenty of fiber that is good for supporting satiety, blood glucose regulation, and gastrointestinal health. Fruits and vegetables are also made up of mostly carbohydrate (rather than fat or protein), and both provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other biologically active phytonutrients. In summary, you could technically survive without carbohydrate, but carbs play many important roles in the typical diet (and an even more important role in the diet of athletes who train or compete in high-intensity activities).
Carbohydrates can be divided into a number of distinct subtypes. Perhaps the most simplistic method of categorization is to classify carbohydrates as either “simple” or “complex.” Simple carbs refer to sugars, whereas complex carbs refer to starches and dietary fibers. There are a handful of different types of sugars, but the most commonly discussed sugars tend to be glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Sucrose is table sugar, and it’s made of a 50:50 split of glucose and fructose. Glucose is a particularly noteworthy component of table sugar; it’s a key energy source for our brains, it provides the building blocks for starch and glycogen, and our ability to regulate its concentration in our bloodstream is a critical indicator of health. Fructose is commonly found in fruit (alongside some glucose and sucrose), but it is also consumed in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. It’s commonly believed that fructose has a deleterious impact on cardiometabolic health, even at fairly modest intake levels, which has led to widespread concerns about the health effects of high-fructose corn syrup.
Much like regular table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is just a mixture of glucose and fructose. Few people are intentionally seeking out high-fructose corn syrup in their diet, but it just tends to show up in products that use it as a sweetener. While sucrose (table sugar) is a 50:50 mixture of glucose and fructose molecules that are chemically bound together, the exact mixture of high-fructose corn syrup can be customized, and the glucose and fructose molecules are not bound together. That missing chemical bond is effectively irrelevant, but some high-fructose corn syrup mixtures have higher fructose concentrations than table sugar. A very common version found in many soft drinks contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose, but that isn’t the only variety. For example, many food products (including cereal, baked goods, and other processed foods) use corn syrup with 42% fructose (lower than table sugar), while some candies and other super-sweet products use fructose ratios much higher than 55%.
There certainly aren’t any notable health benefits associated with high-fructose corn syrup, but a lot of the negative stuff you’ve heard about it is probably exaggerated. Glucose and fructose are simply metabolized a little bit differently in the body, and very high fructose intakes can have unfavorable effects on your liver and blood lipids. It’s pretty tough to unintentionally get troubling amounts of fructose from eating whole fruits, but you can achieve some remarkably high intakes of fructose if you’re consuming a lot of processed, hyper-palatable, high-calorie foods and beverages like soda, juice, and candy. So, there is a biochemical basis for some of the concerns related to fructose, but you don’t have much to worry about if you’re physically active, eating an appropriate amount of total energy, and eating a fairly balanced diet. In healthy, active, weight stable people, even extremely high fructose intakes are pretty benign.
So, there’s nothing to fear about carbohydrates, and there are numerous reasons to include them in your diet. As mentioned previously, many carb sources are high in fiber, which is great for regulating hunger, glycemic control, and bowel movements, while also being inversely associated with a number of cancers and chronic diseases. High-fiber carb sources, such as certain fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, also provide a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are important for optimal health and function. Finally, sufficient carbohydrate intake can support performance and body composition goals. When we consume carbohydrates, some of the carbs are immediately used for energy, and a large portion is stored as glycogen (primarily in our muscles and liver) for later use. High-intensity exercise requires plenty of carbohydrate availability to produce energy rapidly enough to sustain performance, so we want to have plenty of glycogen stored up prior to an exercise bout. Insufficient carbohydrate availability can impair sprint performance, muscle contractile function, and strength performance, and muscle and liver glycogen levels get depleted during exercise. So, adequate dietary carbohydrate provides us with plenty of fiber, micronutrients, and substrate to fuel high-intensity exercise.
Alcoholic beverages don’t typically contain substantial amounts of fat or protein, so we’re really looking at two sources of calories in alcoholic drinks: the carbohydrate content, and the alcohol (ethanol) itself. In the United States, a “standard drink” contains roughly 14g of ethanol, although this criterion varies from country to country. An ethanol dose of ~14g can be found in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor, although these values are very rough estimates. Each gram of ethanol provides 7 kilocalories, and (unfortunately) not much else. Acutely consuming large doses of alcohol can impair recovery from exercise, and habitually consuming large doses of alcohol can obviously lead to liver damage, cancer, and other pathologies. Small doses of alcohol aren’t as deleterious and don’t seem to interfere with fitness-related progress, but they can put our diet in a tight spot by providing plenty of calories without bringing much value to the table. If we’re on a fairly calorie-restricted diet, we need to be mindful of hitting several intake targets, including fiber, protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and a long list of micronutrients. As such, even small or moderate doses of alcohol can put a little extra strain on the diet if total energy intake is restricted. When total energy intake is higher, it can be quite easy to fit in small doses of alcohol while achieving target intakes for important nutrients.
Sugar alcohols are a fairly unique type of alcohol that might find their way into your diet as low-calorie sweeteners. Some common sugar alcohols include erythritol, isomalt, maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. Sugar alcohols are typically derived from sugars, and they are relatively sweet but typically only contribute about 2.4kcals per gram. As a result, some food companies swap out sugar in favor of sugar alcohols (sometimes in combination with artificial sweeteners) to provide the same amount of sweetness with fewer calories per serving. The various sugar alcohols tend to have somewhat distinct properties, which leads to a variety of different sugar alcohols being used in the production of foods with reduced sugars (for example, maltitol provides a better texture to sugar-free and reduced-sugar chocolate products than other sugar alcohols or low-calorie sweeteners). Another nice characteristic of sugar alcohols is that they’re much better for your teeth than sugar, so using them for sugarless chewing gum is a no-brainer. This all sounds pretty great, so you might be wondering, what’s the catch? Well, at higher dosages, sugar alcohols are effectively laxatives. While some are worse than others, they can generally induce some pretty unpleasant bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea, and they have created some viral web content as a result. Fortunately, they tend to be quite well tolerated at lower doses, and there’s some degree of habituation by which the gastrointestinal disturbance induced by moderate-to-high doses can wane over time (to an extent).
Part 2: Designing the Diet
If you’re about to set up a brand new diet, there are three general ways to set your energy intake level: assume, estimate, or observe.
If you wish to use the “assume” approach, you are essentially adopting a rough number that tends to work pretty well most of the time. The number isn’t informed by monitoring your intake over time or elaborate calculations based on your height, weight, age, or sex; it’s simply a generic number that tends to get most people pretty close to the number they’re aiming for. For a pretty aggressive cut, you’d aim for 11 kilocalories per pound of body weight (24.2 kilocalories per kilogram). A more moderate cut would be closer to 13 kilocalories per pound of body weight (28.6 kilocalories per kilogram). If you’re seeking to maintain your current body weight, you’d aim for 15 kilocalories per pound of body weight (33.0 kilocalories per kilogram). Finally, if you’re planning to gain weight, at a fairly moderate pace you’d aim for 17 kilocalories per pound of body weight (37.4 kilocalories per kilogram), whereas a more aggressive weight gain goal might put you around 19 kilocalories per pound of body weight (41.8 kilocalories per kilogram). Of course, these are very rough estimates, so they shouldn’t be interpreted as precise guidelines. For example, most people will tend to find their maintenance calories between roughly 14-16 kilocalories per pound of body weight, so 15 merely represents the best estimate for the largest percentage of people. If you’re particularly adamant about avoiding weight gain, you might aim for the lower end (14), but if you’re particularly adamant about avoiding weight loss, you might aim for the higher end (16).
Those assumed energy intake values will probably get you within striking distance of the correct intake, but they’re obviously basic, imprecise, and ultimately imperfect. Rather than using this “assume” approach, you might instead wish to take the “estimate” approach, which utilizes equations that provide an estimate based on your characteristics. You begin by using an equation to estimate your basal metabolic rate or resting metabolic rate (there are subtle differences between basal and resting metabolic rate, but for this particular purpose, we can treat them interchangeably). A few popular equations include:
Personally, I’m a big fan of the Cunningham equation for people who have a pretty substantial amount of muscle, and the Revised Harris-Benedict equation for non-lifters. Nonetheless, any of these equations should give you a pretty decent idea of your estimated basal/resting metabolic rate. If you wanted to, you could do all five and take the average. Once you’ve got an estimate of your resting metabolic rate that you feel good about, you have to multiply by an “activity coefficient.” What we’re trying to do is approximate our resting energy expenditure, multiply it by a number that adequately represents the other components of our energy expenditure (TEF, NEAT, EAT), and end up with a decent estimate of our total daily energy expenditure. The activity coefficient you select will be, unsurprisingly, based on your overall activity level. The most common activity factors are as follows:
If you’re trying to see where you fit within those categories, you might run into an issue: there’s no way to fully separate one’s exercise habits from one’s general activity level throughout the day. For example, this set of correction factors can be confusing for someone who trains a ton but is otherwise sedentary all day, or someone who does not perform structured exercise but is doing fairly vigorous activity all day at a physically demanding job. When designing the MacroFactor nutrition app, we created our own correction factors that address exercise and non-exercise activity independently for this very reason:
After multiplying your basal/resting metabolic rate estimate by the appropriate coefficient(s), you’ve got a rough estimate of total daily energy expenditure. If you’re hoping to maintain your current weight, no further action is required; setting your intake level to be equal to your estimated total daily energy expenditure should get you pretty close to your target. However, if you’re interested in gaining or losing weight, we aren’t quite done yet.
If you’re hoping to gain weight, you’ll probably want to estimate your daily caloric intake by multiplying your total daily energy expenditure estimate by 1.1 or 1.2. By doing so, you’ll be eating 10-20% over estimated maintenance calories, which is a pretty good spot for weight gain. Of course, if you’re really adamant about minimizing fat gain, you might only start at a surplus of 5-10% (which would entail multiplying by 1.05 or 1.1). In contrast, if you’re interested in gaining weight more aggressively and not particularly concerned about a little fat gain, you might set your surplus up around 15-20% (which would entail multiplying by 1.15 or 1.2). If you’d prefer to keep things simple and go for a flat number instead of using multiplication and percentages, you could also just do some simple addition to establish your surplus. Eating about 125 kilocalories above your maintenance level would be a slow, conservative bulk, eating 500 kilocalories above your maintenance level would be a quicker, more aggressive bulk, and somewhere in the 250-375 kilocalorie range would represent a more moderate approach. However, bear in mind that these flat caloric ranges aren’t very effective estimates for individuals with substantially higher or lower energy expenditure than the average adult, so a percentage-based approach is preferable.
If you’re hoping to lose weight, we take an opposite approach. For a pretty conservative weight loss phase, you would set your target caloric intake by multiplying your total daily energy expenditure estimate by about 0.8 or 0.9, representing a 10-20% energy deficit. For a more aggressive weight loss phase, you can probably get away with multiplying by 0.6 or 0.7, putting your deficit in the 30-40% range. As you start getting more and more aggressive, the trade offs are multifactorial; a more aggressive cut allows you to achieve your goal more quickly, but often comes with greater restriction of dietary options, more hunger and lethargy, and higher potential for the loss of lean mass. If you prefer to set your calorie deficit as a flat number rather than a percentage, a 250-500 kilocalorie deficit would be pretty conservative, 500-750 kilocalories would be moderate, and 750-1000 kilocalories would be pretty aggressive. Once again, remember that these flat caloric ranges aren’t very effective estimates for individuals with substantially higher or lower energy expenditure than the average adult, so a percentage-based approach is preferable.
You might not like the idea of making a flat calorie estimate based solely on your body weight, and you might feel that the established estimation equations with multiple variables are still too generic to give you a precise, individualized target for energy intake. This is a very justifiable perspective, and luckily there’s a better alternative ー if “assume” and “estimate” don’t sound sufficient, you can use the “observe” approach. All you need to do is accurately track your body weight every morning and your daily energy intake, and you can identify the calorie target required to meet your goal. If you’re trying to maintain body weight, then you’re trying to find the calorie target that keeps your weight stable. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll be looking for the calorie target that allows you to lose 0.25-1.0% of your body weight per week if you’re taking a slow-to-moderate approach, or over 1.0% if you’re taking an aggressive approach. If you’re trying to gain weight, you’ll be looking for the calorie target that allows you to gain up to 0.1-0.25% of your body weight per week if you’re taking a slow-to-moderate approach, or >0.25% if you’re taking a more aggressive approach. It’s important to acknowledge that classifying a bulking plan as too aggressive depends not only on the rate of weight gain, but also on the individual’s capacity for muscle gain. For someone with a low starting body weight and a predisposition to gain muscle relatively quickly, aggressive weight gain phases make way more sense than they do for someone who struggles to gain muscle quickly or is already close to their maximal muscular potential.
The biggest challenge associated with the “observe” approach is that it requires consistency, patience, and the ability to resist overreacting to small, transient weight fluctuations. Weight bounces around from day-to-day, often due to changes in sodium intake, carbohydrate intake, hydration status, and the bulk of food in our gastrointestinal tract. If you overreact and treat these transient fluctuations as “real” changes in body tissue, you’ll jump to some inaccurate conclusions and make some unnecessary diet adjustments. However, the advantage of the “observe” approach is clear: it allows you to customize your intake based on the ongoing changes that are occurring, so it is 100% individualized, and will inevitably titrate your energy intake to match your goal.
In contrast, the “assume” and “estimate” approaches carry some major drawbacks. People differ in terms of their daily energy expenditure, so less-individualized methods can lead you astray by causing you to start your diet with an inappropriate calorie target. Even if your target is pretty close, your progress toward your goal will be delayed in a manner that is proportional to the magnitude of your estimation error if you fail to adjust your target in response to your progress. If your target is pretty bad and you fail to adjust it over time, it may never guide you to your goal.
Of course, these strategies (assume, estimate, and observe) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you’ll end up needing to shift to the “observe” approach over time regardless of your initial approach. The “assume” and “estimate” approaches only offer us a starting point; continued progress virtually requires that you observe your response to the initial calorie target and adjust your approach accordingly over time. The “observe” approach works best if you use a reasonably well-informed starting point for your energy intake, and various estimation formulas can get most people reasonably close. As such, a combination of “estimate” and “observe” represents the best of both worlds, which is exactly why MacroFactor merges them. It first uses an estimation method based on your baseline characteristics to establish a good starting point for your energy intake. When you start tracking, it rapidly adjusts based on your daily dietary intake and weight changes to efficiently sync your diet targets with your goal, without overreacting to transient weight fluctuations. An appropriate starting point coupled with rapid, individualized adjustments yields the most effective and efficient route to achieving your body composition goal.
The “standard” protein recommendation within the evidence-based fitness community is to aim for 1.6-2.2g/kg of protein per day. This is based on sound evidence, but also assumes that you’re lifting weights, intending to maximize muscle growth (or retention), are not in a sizable caloric deficit, and have a fairly average body-fat percentage (let’s say roughly 10-20% for males, or roughly 18-28% for females). So, if you’re a lifter and the previous description applies to you, then a good recommendation would be to aim for between 3-6 decently sized servings of protein per day, with each yielding at least 0.3g/kg of total protein and at least 2-3g of leucine, with a total daily protein intake of 1.6-2.2g/kg.
If your body-fat percentage is substantially lower or higher than the ranges mentioned previously, then scaling your protein intake relative to total body mass probably isn’t the best bet; you might be better off aiming for somewhere in the range of 2-2.75g/kg of fat-free mass instead. If you exercise regularly but don’t perform resistance training, then your protein needs are a little lower, and if you don’t perform any type of regular exercise, then your protein needs are even lower, although individuals in these situations may still opt for high protein intakes to facilitate fullness and satiety. If you’re in a calorie deficit then your protein needs might be increased, and this is especially true if you’re in a particularly large deficit or you’re already quite lean and aiming to get even leaner.
So, advisable protein intakes could range from as low as 1.25g/kg of fat-free mass (sedentary, weight stable person with moderate-to-high body-fat percentage and a preference for lower protein intake) to up around 3.1g/kg of fat-free mass (highly active, very lean lifter with a preference for higher protein intake in a notable calorie deficit). There are some medical conditions in which some degree of protein restriction is warranted, but this range represents the extreme ends of the spectrum for healthy individuals, so the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. If you use MacroFactor, protein recommendations will be made based on your body composition, goal, energy intake, and exercise habits. But if you’re looking for a quick and easy estimate that makes generalized assumptions about these factors, then a non-lifter can shoot for around 1.2-1.8g/kg of total body mass, and a lifter can shoot for around 1.6-2.2g/kg of total body mass.
Dietary fat is important for health, so insufficient intake is bad news. We want fat in our diet so we can build cell membranes, absorb fat-soluble vitamins, obtain essentially fatty acids, and keep our sex hormones within typical ranges. However, if fat intake gets too high, it could start to displace protein and carbohydrate, which also isn’t ideal for the typical lifter with goals related to high-intensity performance or body composition. Generally speaking, dietary fat often constitutes between 20-35% of a lifter’s total energy intake if they’re consuming a fairly moderate level of total energy (that is, not super low caloric intake, and not super high caloric intake). Even if you’re not a lifter or avid exerciser, this range also works out pretty well for sedentary folks, although their need to preserve carbohydrate in the diet isn’t quite as pressing. In conjunction with this range of 20-35% of energy, it’s a good idea to establish a lower limit for fat intake, just to make sure that this percentage-based range doesn’t lead to insufficient fat intake when calories are low. A lot of people set the lower threshold based on kilograms of total body mass, and typically set it around 0.5-0.6 grams of fat per kilogram of body mass. So, if you weighed 100kg, you’d never let your dietary fat intake get below 50-60 grams per day.
This approach works pretty well for a decently large percentage of the population, but I’m not totally convinced that it’s a truly optimal solution. Dietary fat requirements shouldn’t be expected to scale dramatically upward with increasing adiposity or increasing fat-free mass. In addition, people with higher body weights might be more inclined to adopt fairly low-calorie diets in order to lose a substantial amount of weight in a timely manner. It would seem counterintuitive to insist that someone in that scenario needs to eat more daily fat than a leaner person with similar goals. On the contrary, extremely lean individuals probably have to be more cautious about insufficient dietary fat intake than people with more stored fat mass. In summary, setting a lower limit for fat intake based on total body mass or fat-free mass might lead to unnecessarily high fat intake for dieters with higher body weights, and could also enable inadvisably low fat intakes for some dieters with lower body weights.
Based on these shortcomings of weight-based lower thresholds for fat intake, it probably makes more sense to set the lower fat threshold based on height rather than body mass. Individualized recommendations for fat intake can be challenging to make; most governments and nutrition organizations make fat intake recommendations based on a percentage of calories consumed, while assuming that calorie needs generally increase with increasing stature. It also seems plausible to assume that individuals of larger stature may require slightly more fat intake to support essential fatty acid incorporation into various types of cells and tissues that larger people have more of. By scaling the lower threshold for fat intake based on height, minimum fat requirements can scale upward for people of larger stature, while avoiding paradoxical situations where people who need fat the most (super lean people on low-calorie diets) have very low recommendations for fat intake, or people who need fat the least (people with a large amount of body-fat who wish to lose weight) have relatively high recommendations for fat intake. If you’re below 150cm, then you probably don’t want to go below 30g/day of dietary fat intake. If you’re 150cm or above, then a reasonable lower threshold can be calculated by subtracting 150 from your height (in centimeters), then multiplying the outcome by 0.5, then adding 30.
As a reminder, this is for setting the absolute lower limit, not your target intake. For establishing a target intake, a good (but generalized) estimate would be to aim for somewhere between 20-35% of total energy from fat if your total caloric intake is pretty moderate, or 0.7-1.5g/kg of body mass if your calorie intake is pretty high or pretty low. Whether you err toward the lower or upper end of this range would be dictated by how carbohydrate-dependent your exercise of choice is, and how much you prefer carbohydrates to fats (or vice versa). Obviously, if you calculate a target fat intake value (based on percentage of total energy or grams per kilogram of body mass) that ends up below your previously calculated lower limit, you would raise your daily fat intake target to a value that is equal or greater than the lower limit. MacroFactor uses a height-based lower fat threshold in combination with percentage-based fat targets that align with your stated goals and preferences in order to provide optimized recommendations for daily fat intake, while never going below the advisable lower limit value.
Finally, when it comes to specific types of fat, a simple but effective strategy is to limit artificial trans fats as much as possible, and to get a roughly even split of dietary fat from monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats. Keeping a decent amount of polyunsaturated fat makes it easier to consume plenty of EPA, DHA, and essential fatty acids. Numerous health organizations across the globe recommend around 0.3-0.5g/day of combined EPA and DHA intake for general health, but most people who supplement with fish oil or algae oil supplements tend to aim for around 1-3g/day in hopes of obtaining additional health, performance, or body composition benefits. Whether or not supplementation leads to additional benefits is often debated and varies from outcome to outcome, but that particular discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
Keeping a decent amount of monounsaturated and saturated fat in the diet appears to support sex hormone production pretty effectively. Most guidelines related to cardiovascular health advise keeping saturated fat to no more than 10% of total energy intake, so if you follow the recommendation of getting 20-35% of calories from total fat with a even mixture of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fat, you’ll be under or close to that limit. Of course, if well over 30% of your energy intake is coming from fat, you might potentially consider keeping your saturated fat a little lower than your monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat intakes. Just as the purported benefits of high fish oil intake are controversial and aggressively debated, there is much debate surrounding the relationship between saturated fat and cardiometabolic health. That’s another nuanced debate that exceeds the scope of this article, but interested readers should check out a great 3-part article series by Alan Flanagan of Sigma Nutrition (one, two, three).
When we’re sitting around and resting, our body is mostly utilizing fat for energy. As we start performing light exercise, we progress to using a slightly larger proportion of carbohydrate for energy needs (if it’s available), and a slightly lower proportion of fat. This carbohydrate will either come from a pre-exercise carbohydrate-rich meal, or from glycogen that was stored after we consumed carbs in previous meals. Relative carbohydrate utilization increasingly ramps up as exercise intensity increases, so high-intensity strength and sprint work is heavily reliant upon carbohydrate for energy. For this reason, the optimal amount of carbohydrate in the diet can be heavily influenced by the amount and intensity of exercise someone performs.
If you do a ton of endurance exercise, you’ll need more carbs than a sedentary person. Even if your intensity remains pretty moderate and carbs make up only a small relative contribution to your energy needs during exercise, the sheer amount of total exercise volume will ensure that you’re burning through plenty of carbs that will need to be replaced. Of course, the same is true if you complete an appreciable amount of high-intensity exercise; even though the total volume of exercise isn’t likely to be extremely high, the intensity of the effort will ensure that even modest amounts of training volume will lead to substantial carbohydrate utilization. If the volume or intensity of your exercise results in heavy carbohydrate utilization and you fail to replace it via dietary intake, the result is pretty simple: performance suffers in subsequent bouts of exercise.
So, if you’re primarily focused on performance and your training (or competition) involves physical tasks with intensities higher than a slow trot and volumes higher than a set of a few resistance training repetitions, you’ll want to make sure you have sufficient carbohydrate available to fuel your efforts. Determining how much is enough will ultimately depend on the specific physical demands of your exercise; as volume and intensity increase, the relative demand for carbohydrate increases as well. So, the typical lifter on a low volume resistance training program with low rep ranges doesn’t exactly need to force feed carbohydrates, but an avid endurance athlete in a tough phase of training definitely ought to prioritize carbs in their diet. For avid endurance athletes, it’s probably not a bad idea to aim for at least 6g of carbs per kg of body weight, whereas the typical lifter can probably get by with at least 3-4g/kg.
If you don’t exercise, your workouts are minimally carb-dependent, or performance during your workout sessions isn’t critical to you, then you have a lot more wiggle room when balancing the calories from carbohydrate and fat in your diet. Nonetheless, independently of exercise considerations, there are still some good reasons to consume a fairly balanced diet with moderate intakes of carbohydrate and fat. For non-exercisers who are just aiming for balanced macronutrient intakes, a carb intake of around 40-60% of total calories is pretty typical, which should facilitate a diet rich in fiber, micronutrients, and phytonutrients, as long as carbs are obtained from a diverse selection of nutrient-dense foods.
Without question, some people prefer low-carb diets for a variety of reasons. For example, some people simply find that low-carb diets fit their food preferences better than low-fat diets do, and others find low-carb diets to be more satiating per calorie. Low-carb diets are not significantly more effective for losing fat, building muscle, or improving cardiometabolic health than low-fat diets with similar protein and calorie content, but they are a viable dietary option nonetheless. A typically low-carb dieter will often set carbs at 30% of energy or lower (up to an absolute upper limit of about 200g/day). For a more extreme approach, ketogenic diets involve even more intensive carbohydrate restriction, with daily intakes rarely exceeding 50-60g or so. Again, ketogenic diets are not inherently better than low-fat diets, and probably aren’t ideal for hypertrophy or bulking, but they are an option for individuals aiming to lose or maintain weight.
So, if performance during high-intensity exercise (or moderate-intensity exercise for extended durations) isn’t a top priority, you have a ton of flexibility for setting your dietary intake. One could choose to adopt a ketogenic or low-carbohydrate approach, although higher carb intake is typically the “default” approach, with 40-60% of energy coming from carbohydrates. For individuals with a large emphasis on exercise performance, dietary carbohydrate needs scale upward with the carbohydrate demands of their exercise. To avoid performance decrements related to low carbohydrate availability, the typical lifter should consider aiming for at least 3-4g/kg of carbs per day, while those regularly engaging in endurance exercise should consider aiming for at least 6g of carbs per kg of body weight. This is assuming, of course, that you’ve got enough calories to make that work after meeting your needs for dietary protein and fat (which might not always be the case).
If you use MacroFactor, you’ll find that it’s totally compatible with a wide range of dietary preferences, and gives you the option to select guidance for low-carb and ketogenic approaches. No matter which dietary setting you choose, relative intakes of fat and carbohydrate will be recommended based on your body composition, goals, exercise habits, dietary preferences, and recommended total energy intake, with care taken to ensure that you have adequate amounts of protein and fat in your diet. The final piece of the carbohydrate puzzle relates to fiber intake, which will be discussed later in this article.
If we’re adopting a totally fitness-focused perspective, then the ideal dietary scenario involves consuming very few calories from alcoholic beverages (if any). When consumed in low or moderate doses, alcohol simply isn’t bringing much to the table, other than extra calories. 400 calories of a balanced meal may provide plenty of essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, whereas 400 calories of alcoholic beverages generally provide ethanol, sugar, and not much else. When consumed in high doses, things get even worse, as heavy alcohol intake negatively impacts hydration status and can lead to a whole host of health problems.
Having said all that, alcoholic beverages can be quite enjoyable, and there’s no reason to guilt ourselves out of enjoying our beverage of choice in moderation. I love a nice beer, bourbon, or glass of wine as much as anybody, and research shows that we have no reason to believe that low-to-moderate alcohol intake will have a disastrous impact on our fitness goals. However, if we’re going to make room for calories from alcohol, we should do that in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. I recommend swapping alcohol calories for carbohydrate calories, which prevents us from skimping on essential fatty acids or essential amino acids when we incorporate alcohol into the diet. So, if you consume 200 total kilocalories in the form of alcoholic beverages, you’d remove 50 grams of carbohydrates (carbohydrates have 4 kilocalories per gram, so dropping 50g of carbohydrates will free up the 200 kilocalories you’re looking for). Obviously the major constraints in this scenario pertain to your daily calorie goal and the magnitude of alcohol consumption. If your diet has plenty of calories to work with and you’re only hoping to enjoy a single drink, working alcohol into the macro equation is pretty easy. However, if you’re on a very calorie-restricted diet or you were hoping to consume several beverages in the same day, the math can be pretty unforgiving, and the extra drinks might not be worth the dietary sacrifices required.
This article isn’t intended to provide a deep dive on micronutrient requirements, but it also felt incomplete to write a diet guide without including an adequate overview. So, we’ll cover the highlights, and you’ll walk away with enough information to equip you for any micronutrient deep dives you wish to pursue in the future.
When we talk about vitamins and minerals, we often discuss dietary reference intakes. There are actually four separate and distinct components of the dietary reference intakes, which are summarized in this table:
You won’t find all four components listed for every single micronutrient; for some vitamins and minerals, we simply don’t have enough information to provide all four. For many micronutrients, we don’t have enough evidence to estimate EAR and RDA values, so an AI value is provided instead. For some micronutrients, there is insufficient evidence to even estimate an AI value, and for others we haven’t conclusively identified a UL level.
In most situations (that is, you’ve got no medical conditions that impact nutrition or metabolism, your overall training volume is low or moderate, and you eat a balanced omnivorous diet with diverse food sources and cooking methods), micronutrient advice is pretty simple: aim for the RDA (or AI if the RDA is unavailable), and stay well below the UL. However, there are some scenarios where this advice won’t cut it.
First, there are a variety of pathologies and medical circumstances that require nutritional adjustments. I’m not a “real doctor” (I’ve got a PhD, not an MD) or a registered dietitian, so I won’t venture anywhere near the realm of medical nutrition therapy. If you’ve got a medical condition that impacts your nutritional needs, it’s best to link up with a registered dietitian or physician who fully understands your medical situation.
Beyond that, there are a few other scenarios that require some modifications and adjustments. If you’re pushing your training really hard or consuming a low-calorie diet, you might want to be extra mindful of getting plenty of iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B12. A little extra micronutrient effort is even more critical for athletes who are vegan, or consume a limited amount of animal products. In some cases, the extra effort on plant-based diets simply relates to certain nutrients being less common and harder to come by in plant foods. In other cases, this difference relates to the form of a micronutrient found in plant versus animal foods. For example, plant foods contribute to vitamin A levels by providing carotenoids whereas animal foods provide retinol; carotenoids (such as beta-carotene) are converted to vitamin A, whereas retinol is preformed vitamin A. As a result, approximately 12 micrograms of beta-carotene are needed to increase vitamin A levels to the same extent as a single microgram of retinol (this is a really rough estimate, but you get the idea).
Finally, the extra effort for plant-based diets sometimes relates to the presence of anti-nutrients. To be clear, the anti-nutrient hysteria has been blown out of proportion by a lot of people pushing meat-heavy diets; anti-nutrients are not inherently deleterious, but they can influence the bioavailability of certain nutrients. So, we don’t need to avoid anti-nutrients as if they’re catastrophically deleterious, but we need to consider their impact on micronutrient bioavailability when we eat a largely plant-based diet. If bioavailability of a nutrient is poor, then a cursory glance at one’s diet might indicate that they’re ingesting plenty of the nutrient, even though they aren’t absorbing plenty of the nutrient. For example, the phytates present in many plant foods can reduce the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium, the oxalates in leafy greens can reduce calcium absorption, the glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables can reduce the absorption of iodine, and the lectins in whole grains and legumes can reduce the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. Having said all that, the anti-nutrient conversation is far more complicated than simply attempting to avoid them. Their impact can be minimized by the way you prepare your food, some anti-nutrients can have positive effects on health, and there is some evidence that we may have adaptive responses to keep our micronutrient levels in normal levels, even if our dietary sources don’t have particularly great bioavailability. Furthermore, strictly avoiding anti-nutrients would involve avoiding a ton of extremely healthful foods, and would require the completely unfathomable choice of avoiding coffee and tea.
So, let’s boil this down to some practical takeaways. You’ll want to aim for adequate amounts of all micronutrients, which would put you at or above the AI or RDA, while being well below the UL. If you’re training extra hard or on a calorie-restricted diet, you might want to be extra mindful of getting plenty of iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B12. If you’re on a vegan (or largely plant-based) diet, then you’ll want to be extra mindful of getting plenty of those micronutrients, along with vitamin D and iodine. On a vegan or heavily plant-based diet, you should also keep in mind that the amount you ingest may be a bit different than the amount you actually absorb, so it might not be a terrible idea to ingest a little extra (while still staying well below the UL). If you’re worried about anti-nutrients, don’t sweat it too much; just consume a balanced diet with a variety of food sources and cooking methods, and everything should fall into place. If you use MacroFactor, you can even check in on your micronutrient intakes to make sure you’ve got your bases covered. If you need to put your mind even more at ease, a multivitamin is always an option as well.
Fiber’s great. Adequate fiber intake can favorably impact satiety, glycemic control, blood lipids, and bowel movement regularity, all while reducing the risk of several cancers and chronic diseases. In fact, the benefits of prioritizing dietary fiber are two-fold; we’ll enjoy the direct benefits of having sufficient daily fiber intake, but we’ll also increase the likelihood of consuming the wide variety of vitamins and minerals that come from fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and grain products. Having said that, going a little overboard with the fiber can be unpleasant, as it can lead to excess gas, bloating, and bowel movement irregularities spanning the spectrum from constipation to diarrhea.
Fiber technically falls under the “carbohydrate” umbrella, but it’s digested far differently than your typical carb. Insoluble fiber pretty much goes right through you, so it provides close enough to 0kcal/gram to consider its energy content negligible. In contrast, soluble fiber can be fermented in the colon, which allows us to absorb roughly 2kcal of energy from each gram of soluble fiber consumed. Note that fiber digestion is pretty complicated, so these values for kilocalories per gram are just general approximations. Nonetheless, if you consistently hit a daily carbohydrate target but your fiber intake fluctuates dramatically from day to day, the amount of energy you’re actually absorbing from your diet will fluctuate as well. Nobody wants to meticulously go through their diet and precisely manipulate their intakes of soluble and insoluble fiber (or handle the resulting calorie calculations), so an easy and effective strategy is to set a daily carbohydrate goal, set a daily fiber goal, and get close to both on a daily basis.
There are two common sets of daily fiber intake recommendations: one set that gives an absolute recommendation in grams, and another set that provides a fiber recommendation per 1,000 kilocalories in the diet. In absolute terms, women are typically advised to consume somewhere around 28g/day and men are typically advised to consume 36g/day. When expressed relative to total energy intake, both men and women are advised to consume 14g of fiber per 1,000 kilocalories in the diet. Of course, scaling fiber recommendations to energy intake can get a bit challenging when you start approaching the upper and lower ends of the energy intake spectrum. If you’re consuming 4,000+ kcals/day, you might find that this fiber recommendation is a bit high; if you’re on a very low-calorie diet, you might find that this fiber recommendation is a bit low. Practically speaking, most people tend to find a “sweet spot” with their fiber intake at which they’re most able to enjoy the benefits for satiety, bowel movement regularity, and stool consistency without experiencing excess gas or bloating. If your fiber intake is low and you’re struggling with hunger or noticing that your bowel movements are of low frequency or poor consistency, a bump in fiber intake might be helpful. If you’re consuming a bunch of fiber and feeling gassy or bloated, then a reduction might be in order. So, a decent approach is to start with one of the previously mentioned recommendations (14g per 1000 kilocalories, or 28-36g/day), then experiment a little bit to see where your “sweet spot” is (or, more accurately, your preferred range of daily fiber intake). Anecdotally, it seems that most people find a comfortable daily fiber intake range somewhere between 20-50g/day.
Over half of your body is water, and you can only survive a few days, at best, without water intake. As such, it should be pretty clear that hydration is important. Given its importance to health, and the extreme exercise and environmental scenarios that threaten hydration status, a tremendous amount of hydration research has been conducted, and you can make the topic pretty nuanced and complex if you so desire. However, for general health and fitness purposes, some pretty simple guidelines can go a long way.
Generally speaking, 3-4 liters of water per day (roughly 0.75-1 gallons) should be sufficient for most people. The daily recommended intake is 2.7 liters for healthy women and 3.7 liters for healthy men, but optimal intake is inherently affected by age, activity level, pregnancy, lactation, environment, and more. For many people, using thirst alone to dictate fluid intake can lead to somewhat insufficient hydration status. Fortunately, there are other easy ways to keep an eye on your hydration status. Urine color is actually a pretty useful and very practical guide for hydration status. Urine should be pale and odorless; if it starts getting darker or smelling more strongly, that’s usually indicative of some degree of dehydration. Body weight can also be a helpful indicator; if you’re effectively replacing lost fluids, you shouldn’t see large changes in body weight over the course of a workout.
Most people get about 20-30% of their daily water intake from the water that is present in their food, with the other 70-80% coming from beverages. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your water is coming from food or drinks; water is water.
It’s also important to keep electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, and chloride) balanced. For most people on a healthy diet, there’s no need to deliberately seek out particular electrolytes or carefully manage their relative intakes. Issues related to electrolyte balance are typically observed only in circumstances where atypical dietary strategies lead to insufficient electrolyte intakes, extreme sweat loss leads to an atypical degree of electrolyte depletion, or extreme restriction or overconsumption of water dramatically alters fluid and electrolyte balance. If your hydration needs are more nuanced than the typical person due to extreme training demands, harsh environmental conditions, or unique medical circumstances, be sure to seek guidance from a qualified medical professional.
Finally, even if your hydration needs are pretty simple and straightforward, keeping an eye on fluid intake and hydration status can have additional benefits if you have specific goals related to body weight. Due to changes in total body water, your scale weight can easily fluctuate by a few pounds in either direction (with larger fluctuations for larger people) in the absence of any particularly extreme perturbations. A really high-sodium dinner can cause a transient elevation in body weight, whereas a period of unusually low carbohydrate intake can cause a notable drop in body weight that will rebound whenever carbs are reintroduced. If you aren’t mindful of fluid replacement, body weight can drop by a few pounds over the course of a hard workout in the heat, and we even weigh less in the morning than the evening due to the absence of overnight food and beverage intake. As a result, it’s critical to consider transient fluctuations in sodium intake, carb intake, and hydration status whenever monitoring body weight changes over time. In order to support successful attainment of body composition goals, standardizing weigh-ins is a great idea. If you wake up, use the restroom, and weigh yourself on the same scale with reasonably standardized clothing every morning, and you make note of transient changes in sodium intake, carbohydrate intake, and fluid balance, you should get a reliable estimate of body weight. Reliable body weight estimates allow you to accurately assess your body weight changes over time, which provides valuable information about your rate of progress and current energy requirements.
Part 3: Adjusting the Diet
Let’s say you use an equation to estimate your energy intake target, then monitor your body weight and adjust energy intake until you achieve the perfect rate of weight change for your goal. That’s great for now, but it won’t be great forever. Body composition and energy expenditure are dynamic and constantly changing. As your body composition changes, you’re carrying a heavier or lighter body around all day, and you’re changing the amount of metabolically active tissue that your body is composed of. To make matters more complicated, different tissues have different rates of energy expenditure; over the course of a day, one pound of brain tissue, liver tissue, muscle tissue, and fat tissue all burn a different number of calories.
The body also has some capacity to adapt in response to changes in energy balance and body composition. For example, consider a scenario where someone sustains negative energy balance, loses a lot of weight, and gets very lean. As described in the Metabolic Adaptation Manual, this individual might have changes in hormone levels that alter resting metabolic rate, changes in energy efficiency that alter exercise activity thermogenesis, changes in the thermic effect of feeding due to reduced food intake, and completely unintentional reductions in non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
As one loses weight, they will inevitably need to continue reducing calories in a stepwise fashion to facilitate further weight loss. Calorie reductions will involve changes to macronutrient targets, so one progresses throughout a diet, they will have to balance the cons associated with excessive reduction of any particular macronutrient. For example, excessive fat reduction can hinder sex hormone production, excessive carbohydrate reduction can hinder exercise performance, and excessive protein reduction can hinder lean mass retention. In most cases, diet adjustments during weight loss will involve simultaneously reducing fat and carbohydrate intake until the absolute lower limit for fat intake is reached. If further calorie reductions are needed beyond that point, reductions will almost exclusively involve drops in carbohydrate intake. A detailed description of this process can be found in the Metabolic Adaptation Manual.
Conversely, adaptive changes can occur during overfeeding (positive energy balance) as well, and the magnitude of these changes occurring in positive or negative energy balance can differ substantially from person-to-person. Some people are quite resistant to intentional weight gain, and may find that their energy expenditure markedly increases and their appetite abruptly disappears when they initiate a caloric surplus. Corresponding diet adjustments involve working to increase carbohydrate or fat intake (or both) depending on dietary preference and carbohydrate demands of exercise, and potentially working to identify food sources that induce less fullness and satiety. For example, an individual struggling to achieve a caloric surplus due to low appetite may incorporate more liquid meals and more hyperpalatable meals to make the caloric surplus more enjoyable and more attainable. As long as your diet contains plenty of fiber, micronutrients, and phytonutrients, and your cardiometabolic health markers are in check, there’s nothing wrong with adding some hyperpalatable foods with low nutrient density to facilitate the attainment of a caloric surplus. As one continues to gain weight, they may find that increasingly higher calorie intakes are required to induce further weight gain, but this shouldn’t be a terribly unpleasant process if food choices are made thoughtfully.
In summary, the dynamic nature of energy expenditure introduces a considerable degree of complication, and the dieter’s challenge involves responding to the important changes, while neglecting to respond to the less meaningful changes. When you increase your caloric intake during a bulk, you might see some increases in body weight due to increased glycogen storage, increased total body water, or increased content with the gastrointestinal tract. These changes do not reflect meaningful shifts in lean tissue or fat tissue, and therefore introduce some “noise” into daily weight data that do not require action. However, you might also see a lack of sustained weight gain due to increases in resting energy expenditure, non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or other components of total energy expenditure. These changes in energy expenditure do require action, but they differ substantially from person-to-person, and can sometimes be difficult to detect among day-to-day fluctuations in scale weight. So, we can’t assume that they’ll always be present, we can’t assume the magnitude to which they’ll be observed, and we can’t assume that they’ll jump out to us in an extremely obvious manner if we just monitor daily weight changes and daily caloric intake with the naked eye.
The same is true during weight loss diets. Total daily energy expenditure may initially drop, purely based on the transition from positive or neutral energy balance to negative energy balance (that is, entering a caloric deficit). As body weight is lost, an adaptive drop in non-exercise activity thermogenesis may cause a disproportionate drop in energy expenditure, although this effect seems highly variable from person-to-person. In addition, energy expenditure will drop more when you lose muscle instead of fat, and even larger drops can be observed when there is a loss of organ tissue (which often occurs when a significant amount of weight loss is achieved). Relative losses of different types of tissue also vary from person-to-person, so this is another factor that can be difficult to predict without carefully and consistently monitoring daily energy balance. Of course, these changes are all occurring while transient weight shifts are simultaneously happening in the background, as reductions in food intake can lead to shifts in glycogen storage, total body water, and gastrointestinal contents. Once again, we can’t assume that meaningful and actionable drops in energy expenditure will always be present, we can’t assume the magnitude to which they’ll be observed, and we can’t assume that they’ll be easy to detect from superficial monitoring of daily weight changes and daily caloric intake.
In order to promote continued progress, it’s important to monitor your daily energy intake and daily fluctuations in body weight in a systematic and nuanced manner, and to use this data to ensure that your energy intake is continuously compatible with your desired rate of weight change. The important point is to remember that your energy needs will continue to change over time, whether you’re gaining, losing, or even maintaining body weight. As such, regular tracking of energy intake and body weight is a fantastic strategy for ensuring that you’re continuing to keep up with the incremental adjustments needed over time. However, it’s important not to overreact to “background noise” and short-term weight trends, as these can be influenced by transient factors that are disconnected from true changes in body composition and energy needs, such as sodium intake, glycogen storage, gastrointestinal contents, and hydration status. If you use MacroFactor, the app takes care of these adjustments to ensure that you stay on track with your goal without overreacting to small or transient shifts in body weight.
This article certainly doesn’t aim to thoroughly cover everything you’d ever want to know about nutrition. Such a goal simply isn’t feasible, as the field of nutrition is expansive and acquiring more and more evidence by the day. You could spend an entire lifetime digging deeper and deeper into the nuances of nutrition, and many have. However, this article should equip you with the basic knowledge required to set up a diet that is compatible with your goals and implement ongoing adjustments to keep you on the right track.
If you’re starting from scratch, the process goes as follows:
- Estimate your total daily energy expenditure by leaning on the equations in this article or monitoring changes in energy intake and body weight over a couple of weeks
- Using the 1980 Cunningham equation in conjunction with the MacroFactor correction factors for physical activity would be a simple but effective starting point
- Set a goal for your desired rate of weight change. This could range from aggressive weight loss to aggressive weight gain, or even no change at all – it all comes down to what you wish to accomplish
- Aggressive weight loss would involve losing >1% of body weight per week, whereas aggressive weight gain would involve gaining >0.25% of body weight per week. These rates represent fairly aggressive ends of the weight change spectrum, but more conservative rates of weight gain or loss are generally more advisable
- Set your daily calorie target based on your estimated total daily energy expenditure and your desired rate of weight change
- Many individuals will accomplish aggressive weight loss with a caloric deficit of 30-40%, whereas many individuals will accomplish aggressive weight gain with a caloric surplus of 15-20%. Once again, these represent the more aggressive ends of the energy intake spectrum, and more conservative intakes are generally more advisable
- Rather than relying exclusively on percentages of total daily energy expenditure, MacroFactor uses a more nuanced approach that involves titrating individualized, goal-specific energy intake recommendations based on your observed energy intake and the change in total body energy associated with a predicted change in body composition
- Set a daily protein target that is compatible with your goal
- If you’re a non-lifter, 1.2-1.8g/kg/day of protein is usually plenty. If you’re a lifter, 1.6-2.2g/kg/day is a good range, but you might aim even higher if you’re very lean and in a caloric deficit. However, these are just basic estimates; better and more individualized estimates (such as those used by MacroFactor) directly account for body size, body composition, energy balance, and exercise habits
- Set fat and carbohydrate targets to hit your daily calorie goal while accounting for your dietary preferences and the physiological demands of your exercise habits
- To prevent excessively low fat intake, an absolute lower limit for dietary fat (in grams per day) can be calculated by subtracting 150 from your height (in cm), then multiplying the outcome by 0.5 and adding 30, with people under 150cm tall using 30g as a flat lower limit. If high-intensity exercise performance is a priority, you’ll want to take in at least 3-4g/kg/day of carbohydrate, if your calorie target allows for it
- Closely monitor calorie intake and changes in body weight to make sure that your calorie target is effectively promoting the desired rate of weight change. If body weight is not changing at the desired rate, adjust the calorie target, primarily by altering carbohydrate and fat intake
- Over time, you’ll most likely experience unintentional changes in total daily energy expenditure. Continuously monitor calorie intake and changes in body weight, and adjust calorie intake as needed to stay on track with the desired rate of weight change
Of course, if you want some help along the way, the MacroFactor diet app can be a helpful tool to assist with accurately estimating your total daily energy expenditure, identifying a daily calorie target to support your goal, setting optimal targets for each macronutrient, conveniently tracking your daily nutrition intakes, continuously making data-driven adjustments to your calorie and macronutrient targets, and guiding the process to support your success and keep you on track with your goal.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
If you’re lifting and aiming to gain (or keep) as much lean mass as possible, 1.6-2.2g of protein per kilogram of body mass works pretty well in most contexts. If you’re on the higher end of the body-fat spectrum, you may aim for the lower boundary of this range. If you’re very lean and trying to get even leaner, you might aim for the higher boundary (or even a bit higher than 2.2g/kg). If you don’t lift regularly, then a lower range of 1.2-1.8g/kg is probably sufficient.
How Much Carbohydrate and Fat Should I Eat?
For a lot of people, 0.5g of fat per kilogram of body mass is a decent estimate of the lowest advisable daily fat intake. However, this number doesn’t work equally well across the entire body weight spectrum. If you subtract 150 from your height (in cm), then multiply the outcome by 0.5 and add 30, this should give you a good estimate of your lower boundary. If you’re under 150cm tall, you probably want to ignore this equation and set your lower boundary to an even 30g/day.
Generally speaking, diets with pretty “typical” macronutrient distribution involve consuming 0.7-1.5g of fat per kilogram of body mass (or around 20-35% of energy intake from fat), with the rest of non-protein calories coming from carbohydrate. However, there is plenty of flexibility when it comes to balancing fat and carbohydrate in the diet. People who do a lot of high-intensity exercise may seek to consume over 6g/kg/day of carbohydrate, whereas people who prefer low-carb diets may seek to cap carbs at 30% or less of energy, and some might even prefer a ketogenic approach that limits total carb intake to no more than 50-60 grams per day. Relative intakes of fat and carbohydrate should be determined based on your body composition, goals, exercise habits, dietary preferences, and total energy intake, with care taken to ensure that you have adequate amounts of protein and fat in your diet.
What About Time-Restricted Feeding?
Rather than eating equally spaced meals throughout the day, time-restricted feeding encourages dieters to eat all of their meals within a quite narrow time window each day, often spanning 4-8 hours. This strategy is sometimes called intermittent fasting within the fitness world, but scientists call it time-restricted feeding.
A lot of people tend to eat fewer calories when they use a restricted daily feeding window, which can facilitate fat loss goals. However, time-restricted feeding isn’t necessarily more effective for weight loss when calorie intake is controlled. In addition, time-restricted feeding inherently foregoes the potential benefits of equally spaced protein feedings on protein turnover in muscle tissue. So, time-restricted feeding seems to be a viable way to indirectly reduce calorie intake, and an optimal approach for people interested in maximizing muscle growth (or retention) might consider opting for an 8-hour feeding window with three distinct protein doses throughout. MacroFactor shows your daily meals on a timeline, which enables you to monitor your feeding window as you see fit.
What About Intermittent Fasting?
In the scientific literature, there are a few types of protocols for intermittent fasting. The most common include alternate day fasting, fasting for a two-day period, or including two fasts per week on non-consecutive days:
Meta-analyses on this subject generally tend to indicate that intermittent energy restriction strategies, using a variety of fasting protocols, do not lead to greater weight loss than typical weight loss diets. However, they also don’t seem to be substantially worse (at least in untrained subjects). While I maintain concerns about lean mass retention when using prolonged fasting periods, intermittent fasting strategies that implement long fasting windows can be effectively used by dieters who prefer the way these protocols fit their daily schedule or satiety preferences, and aren’t super concerned about muscle gain (or retention). If you choose to do intermittent fasting, you can easily implement any of the common intermittent fasting protocols within the MacroFactor app.
What About Ketogenic (Keto) Diets and Other Low-Carb Diets?
Ketogenic and low-carb diets have some pros and cons. They are viable options for weight loss or weight maintenance diets, and some people find that these diets help them manage their hunger or food choices more effectively while dieting. However, carb restriction can make it a little harder to get adequate intakes of certain micronutrients, and people who do a lot of high-intensity exercise might find that their performance is impaired when their carbs drop too low. Nonetheless, MacroFactor is totally agnostic with regards to dietary preferences, and gives you the option to select guidance for low-carb and ketogenic approaches. In fact, you can even set your own macro targets with the macronutrient breakdown of your choosing.
Are Processed Foods Bad?
Not necessarily. Whey protein is about as processed as a food can be, and few people view it as an inherently unhealthy food. The fact is, processing takes many forms; we are even “processing” food as we cook and chew it. When people talk about “bad” processed foods, they’re generally referring to foods that are highly processed, largely devoid of fiber and micronutrients, and extremely palatable. Such foods can absolutely be incorporated into a healthy diet, but many people find that they tend to exceed their daily energy target or fall short of their fiber and micronutrient targets when their diet becomes too reliant upon highly palatable, ultra-processed foods. So, these foods are not inherently bad and need not be avoided entirely, but healthy diets generally tend to include plenty of minimally processed, micronutrient-dense foods in conjunction with some more processed foods.
What About Vegan or Other Vegetarian Diets?
A vegan diet can make it a little more challenging to obtain adequate amounts of some key micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B12. However, this can easily be overcome by thoughtful food selection (or supplementation), and a vegan or vegetarian diet can easily be adopted without unfavorably impacting health, body composition, or performance. There is ongoing debate and argument about whether or not a well-designed vegetarian diet is inherently more healthful than a well-designed omnivorous diet, but a plant-based diet with plenty of protein and no micronutrient insufficiencies can be viewed as an excellent diet option that is neither worse nor dramatically more advantageous than a well-designed omnivorous diet.
What About the Carnivore Diet?
There aren’t many people who casually dabble in the carnivore diet, which involves exclusively consuming animal products. This approach is pretty extreme when framed relative to conventional dietary guidelines, and is typically adopted with a pretty extreme level of enthusiasm. So, if you like the carnivore diet, I’m not interested in trying to talk you out of it. However, given the large body of evidence reporting health benefits of a wide range of plant-based foods, you won’t catch me suggesting that people go out of their way to avoid the consumption of micronutrient-dense plants and fungi. A carnivore diet will be low in carbohydrate by default, so it limits your choices with regard to macronutrient distribution. Nonetheless, you can still use MacroFactor to track your daily nutrition intakes and keep your energy intake target in line with your body composition goals over time.
What About the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet only allows for the consumption of foods that are perceived to have been available to our early ancestors of the Paleolithic Period. Major limitations of the diet include our incomplete understanding of exactly what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, the high probability that groups living in different regions had markedly different diets, and the reality that the modern interpretation of the Paleo diet unnecessarily prohibits foods that can easily be incorporated into a healthy overall diet. Having said that, one can easily construct a balanced and healthful diet using only Paleo-approved foods, so the diet does not directly eliminate any essential nutrients in a deleterious manner. So, Paleo is fine, but involves making some sacrifices that aren’t entirely necessary. If the simplicity of Paleo helps you increase your intake of micronutrient-dense foods and meet your intended targets for energy intake and macronutrient distribution, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Should I Count Macros and Calories from Supplements?
For supplements containing meaningful amounts of carbohydrate, fat, protein, amino acids, or ketones, it’s probably a good idea to track them, even if the label doesn’t list any calories. For example, it’s not uncommon to find branched-chain amino acids products that list zero calories per serving or fail to disclose information pertaining to calorie content, but actually contain roughly 4kcals per gram. Obviously, the degree to which this calorie tracking matters will depend on your supplement consumption habits and the precision required for your goal. If you’ve got an intense goal for which every calorie matters (such as high-level competitive bodybuilding) and you consume a substantial amount of energy from supplements each day, then tracking supplement calories is advisable. If you’re just generally trying to enhance your fitness level and you only consume a single serving of branched-chain amino acids once or twice per week, then tracking supplement calories isn’t going to meaningfully impact your progress.
What About Low-Calorie Sweeteners?
The term “low-calorie sweetener” describes a group of diverse sweetening agents that have one thing in common: they can deliver the same sweetness as a typical sugar dose, while contributing fewer calories. You could lump sugar alcohols in here if you want to, but some of the low-calorie sweeteners are so low in energy that they’re virtually calorie-free. Examples include stevia, sucralose, aspartame, and many more. There’s a lot of fear mongering that seems to be predicated on the assumption that low-calorie sweeteners are simply too good to be true. If you check out lay press articles, you might run into concerns about cancer risk, impaired glycemic control, out-of-control sugar cravings, paradoxical weight gain, gut microbiome disruption, and so on. While these various low-calorie sweeteners are all truly distinct food ingredients that require distinct lines of research, it’s appropriate to collectively summarize the literature by stating that to this point, research has not validated the fear mongering. Low-calorie sweeteners seem to be quite benign within the range of common daily doses, with neutral to positive effects on weight management. However, if you consider sugar alcohols to be part of this group of sweeteners, it’s important to note that high doses of some sugar alcohols can lead to unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects, such as bloating, discomfort, and diarrhea.